This article was originally published on March 30, 2015.
There’s a tradition of retired San Antonio CEOs taking on new challenges rather than actually retiring. Ed Whitacre completed a long and successful career building the modern AT&T, retired as CEO in 2007 and by 2009 had answered a White House summons to take over embattled General Motors as its new chairman. Bill Greehey built Valero into a Fortune 50 company before retiring as CEO in 2006 even as he led the drive to create the Haven for Hope, an internationally recognized program homeless treatment community. He continues to serve as chairman of NuStar Energy, which has grown to join the Fortune 500.
Now its former USAA CEO and President Joe Robles Jr.’s turn to get back into the action. The retired Army major-general also has answered a call from the White House. Robles, who has only been retired one month, has agreed to serve as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Department’s newly formed MyVA Advisory Committee, an initiative to take one of the federal government’s worst performing bureaucracies and make it more service friendly and responsive to the people it’s meant to serve: men and women who have served in the U.S. military.
Robles will head a blue ribbon panel of former military leaders, business executives and health care experts. It’s a major undertaking and one that comes with serious risk of failure or at least frustration. No federal agency has proven less receptive to reform and modernization or more resistant to change. No nation claims to value its veterans more than the United States, yet no country seems to fail its veterans with the same inexplicable predictability.
President Obama announced the formation of the MyVA Advisory Committee earlier this month during a visit to a VA medical facility in Phoenix (see top photo). He was accompanied by Secretary of Veteran Affairs Bob McDonald, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson and Robles. The leaders held a round table at the Phoenix VA hospital and met with veterans to hear their firsthand frustrations seeking medical services and their benefits.
“It’s important that veterans know that somebody’s got their backs, and that, if there are problems, that we’re not being defensive about it, not hiding it.” — President Obama in Phoenix
Robles will chair a board with considerable firepower and will convene the group’s first meeting in April and thereafter meet every few months. Exactly how he and other committee members will tackle the VA’s long-entrenched problems and what authority it will have to enact reforms remains to be seen.
Prior efforts to modernize and reform the VA going back decades have been met with mixed success or failure. Virtually every president since Ronald Regan has pledged to provide better care and benefits for veterans. Most efforts have come up short, although the competing bureaucracies, facilities and veterans’ services and programs that once characterized the VA and the Department of Defense have been streamlined.
The VA has been criticized as a paper-driven bureaucracy where records and claims often were lost or ignored for months, sometimes years, and where many veterans failed to win the agency’s attention unless their cases drew serious media attention. The committee’s mandate is to develop short-term and long-range goals to improve VA operations and services, but no details have yet emerged. The Rivard Report has requested an interview with Gen. Robles to learn more about his plans as committee chair.
Robles will start with something many senior military officers who reach the top ranks of power cannot claim: humble roots as as one of nine children born in Puerto Rico whose family moved to the Midwest when Robles was young. He was on the path to life as a pipe fitter or electrician when he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Robles’ unusually high test scores caught the eyes of instructors and he was redirected to a program that put non-college graduates into Officer Training School.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Gen. Robles since we first met years ago. His improbable rise from draftee to two-star general and then to CEO of one of the nation’s most respected companies is the stuff of dreams. He left the military a decorated veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, and with an undergraduate degree and and MBA. He joined USAA in 1994 and became CEO in 2007, leading it to considerable growth and #132 on the Fortune 500 list.
His low-key personality and management style and sense of humor can put anyone at ease. Given his own good fortune, it’s no surprise that Robles cares deeply about public education outcomes for disadvantaged youth. His own parents never even made it to high school, yet both instill him a deep belief in the value of a good education. Robles served as co-chair of the Pre-K 4 SA initiative with Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B. He has been active as the parent of an autistic son, Christopher. My own godson, Philip True Jr., is autistic, and I’ve always admired how Robles, even while serving as USAA’s CEO, made time to be an active and involved parent with his wife, Patty.
You can read a more extensive bio of Robles on the Horatio Alger Association’s website. Robles was the organization’s 2011 honoree.
The MyVA Advisory Committee:
- Josue “Joe” Robles Jr. — Retired Army major-general, USAA CEO (2007-15).
- Michael Haynie — Vice-Chair of Syracuse University and Air Force veteran who direct’s the school’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Haynie will serve as vice-chair under Robles.
- Herman Bulls — International director of Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicag0-based real estate investment firm with worldwide offices. Bulls is an Army veteran and a graduate of both the U.S. Military Academy and Harvard. He serves as a director of the West Point Association of Graduates and also is a director on the USAA board .
- Teresa Carlson — Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector, Amazon web services, and a former Microsoft executive and health care industry executive.
- Dr. Richard Carmona — Former U.S. Surgeon General (2002-06) is a disabled Special Forces Vietnam veteran and a former high school dropout who went on to graduate from medical school. He is on the medical faculty at the University of Arizona.
- Dr. Delos “Toby” Cosgrove — CEO of the highly-regarded Cleveland Clinic, a former Air Force physician and Vietnam Veteran.
- Dr. Laura Herrera — Maryland’s deputy secretary for public health served as a medical officer in the Army Reserve and acting deputy chief officer of patient care services in the Veterans Health Administration.
- Chris Howard — Retired Air Force colonel, president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and a board director of the American Council on Education.
- Nancy Killefer — Senior director of the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., former Treasury Department official, and vice-chair of the Defense Business Board.
- Fred Lee — Speaker, former Disney executive and health care executive, and author of “If Disney Ran Your Hospital, 9½ Things You Would Do Differently.”
- Dr. Eleanor “Connie” Mariano — Filipina-American, retired Navy rear-admiral, founder of the Center for Executive Medicine. and White House physician for Pres. george H.W. Bush, the first women to hold the post.
- Jean Reaves — Vietnam veteran, president of North Carolina’s AMVETS Service Foundation.
- Maria “Lourdes” Tiglao — Founded the first critical care medical attendant team in the Pacific during her time in the Air Force, and now serves as a regional communications manager for the disaster response group Team Rubicon.
- Robert Wallace — Vietnam veteran, works as executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has worked in the banking industry and various positions in New Jersey state government.
“Each of them understands that VA must improve customer service and focus the department on the needs of our veterans,” McDonald said, according to a White House blog post.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Gen. Robles as a a Puerto Rican-born immigrant. since the island is a U.S. Territory, he is U.S. born.
*Featured/top image: President Barack Obama, with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald, left, Joe Robles, Chairman of the just-announced MYVA, and Sloan Gibson, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, far right, listen to the comments of a veteran during a roundtable at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, March 13, 2015. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.